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The Strangest Shabbos You’ve Ever Seen

Blogging Joshua Cohen’s ‘Witz’

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The Scroll will be blogging selected sections of Witz, the new novel from Tablet Magazine columnist Joshua Cohen. Josh will be celebrating James Joyce’s Ulysses with us next Wednesday, June 16.

It’s not easy to imagine someone even glancing at Joshua Cohen’s 817-page Modernist epic novel Witz and mistaking it for a run-of-the-mill Holocaust memoir or Eastern-European-genealogical romp, of the type that lands on the desks of staffers at Jewish magazines several times per week. But, as though to make absolutely certain that no one gets misled by the w-pronounced-as-a-v in the title, Cohen (at 29, an already-accomplished novelist and essayist) opens Witz with a sort of moat of difficulty. All seeking entry into its main narrative must cross.

For the first 20 pages or so, we find ourselves in a cubistically rendered mincha service in what seems to be an observant Jewish quarter somewhere in the contemporary United States. Then, we cross “from the world of the father to that of the mother,” in Cohen’s words, and land, still confused, at the Shabbos dinner of Hanna and Israel Israelian and their twelve semi-interchangeable daughters. At the end of the meal, Hanna will give birth, right there on the kitchen table, to a son, Benjamin, who happens to come out of the womb already a little old Jewish man. Benjamin will wind up being the last Jew on earth, and the novel’s protagonist. But we don’t know any of that yet. (more…)

How Alan Furst Likes His Insurgents

Your Vox Tablet preview

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(Eric Molinsky)

Spies of the Balkans, the latest of Alan Furst’s eleven historical spy novels, comes out next week. Like his previous tomes, Spies takes place in the years leading up to and during World War II, and involve protagonists who, somehow or other—often almost inadvertently—get caught up in the resistance movement.

Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry wants to know why these heroes never seem to be quite like the resistance fighters we’ve come to know—people like the Bielski brothers of the film Defiance. Here’s what Furst has to say.

For more, check back Monday for the full podcast.

Earlier: Hero Worship

Leor Grady’s Unconventional Gallery

Israeli artist exhibits in an empty Harlem room

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(Inbal Abergil)

The Israeli-born artist Leor Grady has shown work in some fairly recognizable venues—most prominently the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery—but his most recent installation is notable not because it’s it in a prominent place but an unexpected and obscure one: Apartment #2C2 in the Hillview Towers at West 145th Street in Manhattan. Namely, a vacant one-bedroom apartment in the building where Grady lives.

Born to immigrants from Yemen, Grady has been deeply influenced by Yemeni embroidery and other crafts. But the mode in which Grady works cannot be classified as simple folk art. It is a thoroughgoing exploration of hybridity: The mixing of art and craft, of east and west, of public and private, of sacred and profane.

Grady’s range of materials is commensurate with the size of his ambition: Cleaning rags, handkerchiefs, photographs, olive oil, velvet, silver, and gold.

The exhibition, titled “I Am My Beloved’s and My Beloved Is Mine,” will be on view this Saturday and Sunday, from noon through 8pm.

After June 12th the project will be on view by appointment.

I Am My Beloved’s and My Beloved Is Mine

Turkey Turns Eastward

The overlooked aftermath of the flotilla incident

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An artist paints a mural of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in Gaza City.(Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly two weeks later, with peace talks still tentatively on track and the future status of the Gaza blockade still up in the air, the most significant consequence of the flotillia incident is the major rifts that have occurred between Turkey and Israel and between Turkey and much of the West, most of all the United States.

Turkey has been Israel’s strongest ally in the Muslim world for awhile now. And as for the West—well, Turkey is a member of NATO. For the United States to be experiencing a serious rift with a country to which it is bound by a collective defense treaty is no small thing.

And here’s the thing: It seems very likely that this is Turkey’s plan, or at least of its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Take the flotilla. While it is not clear just how active and explicit a hand Turkey’s government had in planning the flotilla, at the very least it tacitly encouraged the activists and has subsequently held them up as unadulterated victims; some have argued that Turkey played an even more direct role.

Turkey’s foundering on the shoals of European Union membership have pushed it eastward; and Turkey’s domestic political situation have made it be in Erdogan’s interest to play up the Palestinian cause. Given Turkey’s cultural, strategic, and even geographic centrality to maybe the world’s number-one hotspot—the greater Middle East/Central Asia region, from the Holy Land’s emotional landmine to the steppe’s natural gas fields, from Iraq to Iran to Afghanistan—the consequences of Turkey’s move away from the Western coalition and toward some sort of third-way scenario could totally shift the geopolitical situation in a way that is not likely to be to Israel’s benefit.

We should have seen this coming. (more…)

Lieberman, in New York, Meets With Russian Jews

Moldovan-born foreign minister performs outreach

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Foreign Minister Lieberman (second-from-left) at Vladimir Gusinsky’s gala.(Michael Nemirovsky)

It’s been a big week for shuttle diplomacy: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Washington, D.C., meeting with President Barack Obama, and top Israeli officials were in New York City meeting with all kinds of influential people.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman arrived at JFK on a red-eye Monday morning and went straight to briefings with his ambassadors and consuls. On Tuesday, he spoke to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations about Israel’s concerns that it is being de-legitimized, and to religious leaders about pending Israeli legislation on conversions, which would expand the Israeli rabbinate’s power to decide who can be called a Jew.

But Lieberman’s official schedule failed to mention what was perhaps his most important mission: Outreach to America’s Russian Jews. On Monday, Lieberman met with more than two dozen leaders of that community at the Intercontinental to discuss the flotilla and the current threats to the Jewish state. “Our mentality and our ideas and our problems can be different from the mainstream American Jewish community, and I can give you one explanation,” Michael Nemirovsky, who directs Russian outreach for New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, told Tablet Magazine. “About 83 percent of the Russian Jewish community has relatives in Israel, so if something happens in Israel, it’s my own family. It’s a physical relationship, not just a moral relationship.” (more…)

U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Meet the three Jews on the World Cup squad

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U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber.(U.S. Soccer)

In an excellently titled blogpost (“Our Cup Runneth Over”), Ron Kaplan reports that there are not one, not two, but three Jews on the U.S. squad, which plays its first game in the 2010 World Cup Finals tomorrow, in South Africa, against England.

They are:

Jonathan Bornstein
Benny Feilhaber
Jonathan Spector

What else can I tell you about these guys? Well, not much. If you want a “Soccer Jew” (“that intellectual, kvetchy, Granta-reading guy who also happens to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Ronaldinho’s every kick”), I suggest you head here.

I can tell you, via Kaplan, that Feilhaber’s paternal grandparents fled from the Nazis to Brazil—another country where they play soccer—and that Spector’s grandfather, Art Spector, was the first player ever drafted by the Boston Celtics.

I can tell you they are all experienced, each having at least 25 caps (that’s soccer-talk for “international appearances”—don’t worry, I had to look that one up, too).

I can tell you that Bornstein and Spector are defenders, while Feilhaber is a midfielder.

I can tell you that Spector must be legit, as he plays for the English Premier League’s West Ham United, while Feilhaber plays for a storied Danish squad whose name I’m not even going to attempt to copy and paste. And Bornstein plays in America, for a Major League Soccer team named after goats, whose head coach manager is also the head coach manager of the U.S. national team.

I can tell you that Tablet Magazine’s official team is the United States, and also whichever team is playing North Korea (which will include Brazil, Portugal, and the Ivory Coast—appropriately enough, the DPRK was placed in this year’s Group of Death).

Above all, I can tell you that The Scroll will, throughout its World Cup coverage, be referring to this arguably beautiful game as soccer. After all, football doesn’t start for another three months.

Our Cup Runneth Over [Kaplan’s Korner]
Related: Plotz Like Beckham [NYO]

Today on Tablet

Illegal Israeli immigrants, World Cup, and more

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Today in Tablet Magazine, Mya Guarnieri reports on Israel’s own illegal immigration problem: The 1200 or so “visa babies,” born to illegal migrant workers, whom some hope to expel along with their parents. In his weekly haftorah column, Liel Leibovitz gets into the World Cup spirit. The Scroll will try to muster something like his enthusiasm, too.

The Big Squeeze

Hey that’s no way to eat hummus

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Hummus.(Flickr)

I took most culinary innovations of the past decades with a stiff upper lip. When cereal makers began stuffing their products with freeze-dried fruit that looked like they belonged on the International Space Station, I remained quiet and dignified. When some mad food scientist spliced bacon and mayonnaise, I said not a word.

But hummus in a squeeze bottle? That’s blasphemy.

To be fair, I haven’t tried Zohan Hummus. To be fairer still, everything about it—from the already-stale pop culture reference to the bizarre pillow fight in its ad—seems designed to keep serious hummus connoisseurs away, and should therefore count, perhaps, as some sort of dialectical good. But first principles are first principles: No matter how delicious the paste or how convenient its mode of dispensation, squeezing hummus from a bottle is an abomination.

You see, in Israel, where I was born and where I received years of higher hummus education, one never simply states that one is about to eat hummus. When it comes to hummus, the correct verb is le’nagev, or to wipe. Tear a small piece of pita, introduce it to the plate at an approximate 50-degree-angle, and wipe the tasty paste with short, semi-circular motions. Such is the ritual—anything else is heresy.

To those of our readers whose proclivities demand that food be squeezable, bon appetit. Otherwise, for some serious hummus experience, please consider these guys.

Daybreak: The Blockade Has Failed

Plus Reform Yoffie retires, and more in the news

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• The flotilla aftermath has brought home the blockade’s failure to disrupt Hamas’s rule, prompting rapid rethinking in Israel of alternative ways to strenghten Gaza’s pro-Western business class and undermine Hamas. [NYT]

• The Obama administration is working Capitol Hill to somewhat defang Iran energy sanctions—which would ban the sale of refined petroleum—lest they go too far and anger diplomatic allies. [LAT]

• Rabbi Eric Yoffie, longtime head of the Reform movement, announced that he will step down two years from now. [Forward]

• The French, Spanish, and Italian foreign ministers call for an “impartial, transparent, and … international” investigation; an end to the blockade; and resumption of the peace process. [IHT]

• Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., President Abbas acknowledged Jewish history in the land and claims to West Jerusalem. [JPost]

Sundown: Abbas Charms AIPAC

Plus Weiner gets into a fight with a goat, and more

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Yes, this is what it looks like.(WSJ)

• At a private gathering in Washington, D.C., Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas won high marks from AIPAC, the ADL, and like-minded activists. [Foreign Policy]

• In what has become something of a counter-conventional wisdom view, two authors argue that U.S.-led energy sanctions against Iran (which are unlike the just-passed U.N. ones) could go a long way toward welcome regime change. [Slate]

• A profile of Drake, the rising Jewish Canadian hip-hop star. [NYT]

• Judith Shulevitz takes the measure of Henry Roth’s latest posthumous novel. [Slate]

• The Elvis Costello and now Pixies concert cancellations have many Israelis questioning whether their country has become too isolated. [NYT]

• Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-New York) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) brought two goats to a Capitol Hill press event in order to make a point against a mohair subsidy. The goats were named Lancelot and Arthur; at one point, Arthur farted. Loudly. (Video here.) Then Lancelot nicked Weiner on the hand, drawing blood. Write your own damn jousting joke. [Politico]

On last night’s show, after consulting his Mideast Tsuris Information Tcenter (“Where debate is never cut off—it’s circumcised”), Stephen Colbert sat down with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Formidable Opponent – Michael Oren
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Fox News

Vishniac Inspires High Fashion

For once, pre-Holocaust photographer conjures appropriate nostalgia

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Rebecca Thomson’s prize-winning, Vishniac-inspired collection.(British Vogue)

Here’s one pairing I never thought I’d encounter: Roman Vishniac and Pierrot proportions.

Last night, Rebecca Thomson, a 22-year-old graduate of the Manchester School of Art, took home top prize in London’s 2010 Graduate Fashion Week Gala for a collection that, she said, was inspired by Vishniac’s iconic pictures of Jews in prewar Eastern Europe.

Oy.

Thomson is not the first designer to plumb Jewish life for sartorial inspiration. But, with only a few exceptions—including Alexandre Herchcovitch, whose work I profiled a few years ago—most fashion minds have used Jewish culture as a crutch, passing off a fetishization of insularity and faux-quaintness as a replacement for genuine art. (A moment of silence, please, for Monsieur Gaultier’s fantastic 1993 mishap.)

Given this history, it is almost strange that no designer had been inspired by Vishniac before. He was, after all, one of the main people responsible for the two-dimensional caricature of pre-Holocaust Jewish life, a shtetl nostalgia that has nearly colonized pop culture’s ideas about that time and place. His images—or rather, the ones we knew of until recently—seem almost, well, tailor-made for Gaultier-ian exploitation. I can see the runway set already: “Shtetl Chic: Resort 2012.”

I am pleased to report this isn’t the case: Thomson’s collection is beautiful and sumptuous, and telegraphs none of the threadbare desolation I feared. The clothing is indeed driven by nostalgia, but not the nostalgia for some dangerously insipid idea of the Jewish “shtetl.” Rather, it is the nostalgia for the artisanal, the hand-tailored, the romantically local—qualities that are, in fact, remarkably modern. That she found that freshness and modernity in Vishniac’s pictures—and not even the newly discovered ones!—is a wonder, and a delight.

Also, check out that bow. Who doesn’t love bows?

Britain’s Got New Talent [British Vogue]
Related: Out of Focus [Tablet Magazine]
A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac [NYT Magazine]
Schmatte Chic [Slate]

Studies Show Intermarriages Fail More

Your grandmother may be right after all

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An article in last Sunday’s Washington Post laid out some data on interfaith marriages, and it was not pretty. Such unions “fail at higher rates than same-faith marriages. But couples don’t want to hear that, and no one really wants to tell them.” The article continues:

In some ways, more interfaith marriage is good for civic life. Such unions bring extended families from diverse backgrounds into close contact. There is nothing like marriage between different groups to make society more integrated and more tolerant. …

But the effects on the marriages themselves can be tragic—it is an open secret among academics that tsk-tsking grandmothers may be right. According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.

(Tsk-tsking grandmothers? I should be so lucky.)

And trends suggest that such marriages will only rise, as younger generations seem less and less concerned about entering into them; indeed, many millennials actively seek them out, “as if,” the author writes, “our society’s institutional rules about nondiscrimination in hiring an employee or admitting someone to college have morphed into rules for screening romantic partners.” While only 15 percent of U.S. households were mixed-faith in 1988, 25 percent were in 2006, a number that is expected only to increase. Less than one-fourth of 18-to-23-year-olds polled felt marrying within their faith was important.

And, except for U.S. Buddhists, who had an outlier-esque 39 percent intermarriage rate, American Jews had the highest intermarriage rate in 2001: 27 percent.

Here is where I gently request that you keep it civil in the comments.

Intermarriage Rates Are Rising Fast, But They’re Failing Fast Too
[WP]

Write a Letter To Your Favorite Character

Bloomsday celebrant Ben Greenman coaxes your inner Herzog

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Next Wednesday, novelist, New Yorker editor, and Tablet Magazine contributing editor Ben Greenman will be joining us to celebrate James Joyce’s Ulysses.

To see what he has in store, well, you’ll just have to come to Solas, in Manhattan’s East Village, next week. Meantime, here’s a thought. Greenman’s new story collection, What He’s Poised To Do, from Harper Perennial, drops next Tuesday. (You can read the title story here.) Because the stories are intimately involved with letters and letter-writing, Greenman has set up a super-cool Website, Letters With Character, which encourages readers to submit letters they would write to their favorite literary characters.

“I write to offer my condolences,” Jaime Fuller addresses The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne, “because your life truly sucks. However, I can’t feel too sorry for you, because you have made some poor life decisions. The A on your chest does not condemn you for being an ‘Adulterer,’ but instead for the fact you are ‘Attracted to Assholes.’” Heh.

Perhaps Leopold or Molly Bloom, or Stephen Dedalus—or, hell, the Man in the Macintosh—await your missives? Send ‘em to LettersWithCharacter@gmail.com.

What He’s Poised To Do [Amazon]
Letters With Character
Earlier: Celebrate ‘Ulysses’ with Tablet Magazine

Cult Leader (Maybe) Affiliated With Yeshiva

Baltimore is a strange, strange place

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Recently, there was a 911 call for a domestic assault in a bizarre house in Pikesville, Maryland, a town right outside Baltimore with a significant Orthodox Jewih popluation. Then, there was an explosion, and police, who had surrounded the house, began to fear for their safety when it seemed as though there were snipers inside and that the house itself was associated with a cult called Sist (or maybe SIST).

This cult’s leader, and the house’s owner, is apparently one Dr. Avraham Cohen, a.k.a. R.C. Samanta Roy, a.k.a. “Rama Behera,” who a few years ago was said to have pledged half a million dollars to Baltimore’s Yeshivat Rambam. Dr. Cohen—who may or may not be a doctor (“neurosurgeon,” in fact), and may or may not be a Cohen—allegedly grew up in a Jewish community in India.

Oh, right, and there is video of much of the incident courtesy of Cantor Manny Perlman, who lives across the street.

Was there anything else? Ah, yes: Apparently the Sist/SIST cult tried to pay someone to kill all 60 residents of the town of Shawano, Wisconsin.

Perlman, his wife, and the rest of the neighbors had suspected weird goings-on at the house ever since “Dr. Cohen” moved in ten years ago. “Once the house was turned over to the gentleman who purchased it for his organization, the behavior has always been very unusual,” says nearby resident Patti Friedman.

Assault & Search May Have Link to Cult
[WJZ 13]

Tony Judt on The Flotilla, J Street, and ‘Linkage’

Intellectual expands on essay to Tablet Magazine

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(Penguin)

Tony Judt penned an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times calling for an end to the U.S.-Israeli special relationship. This morning, by email, Judt (author of the new Ill Fares The Land) answered my questions about the flotilla, the future of Israel and the Israel Lobby, Peter Beinart’s recent essay, and more.

You mention the flotilla at the outset, but don’t address it further. What are your opinions of the activists and of the Israeli government’s reaction?
Those onboard were the usual mix: Idealists, genuine NGO types, angry pro-Palestinian activists, and so on. But the Israelis knew that. Their reaction was almost unimaginably pig-headed: It doesn’t show much, other than that the country is increasingly cut off from world opinion. How do they think people will react to what is effectively piracy? They were doomed to be the bad guys—trapped in the logic of their own pointless blockade.

Was there anything else that prompted you to publish this op-ed now?
Not really—the situation has not changed. But this does seem an opportunity to point out that if Israel is a normal state then it just can’t behave this way and be our favorite ally. I think that the present moment may be propitious because the fact that it was Turkey—once Israel’s closest friend in the region, a NATO partner, a Western-oriented Islamic state which is also democratic and one with huge and growing influence in the region—that was affected, offended, and insulted meant that even the White House could not ignore what happened.

You write that Israel “should not” go away. Do you still stand by your apparent endorsement, several years ago, of a single, bi-national state?
I never said Israel should “go away” or anything else. I just wrote that the two-state solution was dying and everyone knew it but pretended otherwise; that it was on the way to becoming “Greater Israel”: A single state with a Jewish minority and therefore no democracy. Under those circumstances, why not rearrange things and create two federal entities within a single state? Nothing to do with “abolishing Israel.” But yes, implicitly the end of an exclusively “Jewish” state. But then four years later [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert pretty much said the same thing, the facts have borne out my prediction, so what did I do wrong? (more…)

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